New Thai Cinema Hits the Road

Mysterious Objects and Black Tigers

"This is the house the Iron Ladies built," someone quips upon entering a mid-June condo-warming party for Fortissimo Films Sales executive Wouter Barendrecht's new crib, some 30 stories above the Chao Phrya river on another hot Bangkok night. Based in Amsterdam and Hong Kong, Fortissimo has been a crucial component of the Asian cinema explosion of the late 1990s. Their top clients include filmmakers like Tsai Ming-liang and Wong Kar-wai, and the Hong Kong box office success of Nang Nak and Iron Ladies was largely by Fortissimo's design; they also brokered Miramax's purchase of Tears of the Black Tiger at Cannes.

Barendrecht's permanent address is still in Hong Kong, but his new way station in Bangkok already seems the eye of a brand-new, pan-Asian filmmaking storm. Hunky bikini-clad waiters serve Thai snacks from silver trays while cinematographer Chris Doyle—just stopping over on his way back to Beijing and the set of Zhang Yimou's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon knockoff, Hero—huddles in conversation with Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang (creator of the comic-violent festival favorite 6ixtynin9) about a potential collaboration, to be financed and photographed in Japan. Possibly the hippest mainstream filmmaker in Bangkok, Ratanaruang is currently in the middle of production on Mon Rak Transistor, an ill-fated love story about the rise and fall of a wannabe singing sensation. Like Jan Dara, Mon Rak Transistor—"You can translate it as Radio Days," giggles the gabby Ratanaruang—is being financed by Applause Pictures, the brainchild of Hong Kong director-producer Peter Chan (Comrades: A Love Story).

All things Thai, spicy, and nude: from Jan Dara
Photo courtesy of Fortissimo Film Sales
All things Thai, spicy, and nude: from Jan Dara

Chan's popular and critical successes in Hong Kong first led him to an alliance with DreamWorks (where he made the insubstantial Love Letter), but during the last couple of years, he's used Applause to foster new alliances between Asian filmmakers, particularly in Bangkok, where he was educated as a child and learned to speak fluent Thai. In partnership with Nimibutr and his producer Duangkamol Limcharoen, Chan sees Jan Dara as a potential template for future successes, and the team's decision to cast Hong Kong actress Christy Chung as Jan Dara's hottest totsie was a major part of their crossover marketing design. "If Chinese filmmakers can make movies in Hollywood," Chan asked the Far Eastern Economic Review earlier this year, "why can't Asians jump out of their local markets and make movies for each other?"

For many Bangkok cineastes, a more pertinent question might be, "When can we start making films for ourselves?" Most film-savvy Thais aren't so much anticipating the version of Jan Dara that will debut at the local multiplex later this year as wondering—given the censor's inevitable snipping or smudging of the film's steamiest episodes—when they'll get a chance to see the film's "international cut."

Of course, not all of the major players in the Thai film renaissance were in attendance at that high-in-the-sky Fortissimo soiree. Some of them were still right down where they started: in the burgeoning Thai film underground. Halfway across town, in the editing room that doubles as the office of his production company, Kick the Machine, the chief exponent of all that's expansive and experimental in Bangkok moviemaking—Mysterious Object at Noon director Weerasethakul, who prefers to go by the nickname Joe—is busy struggling with his first fiction feature, Blissfully Yours.

In some ways, the as yet unfinished Blissfully Yours seems to merge certain themes and backstories from Suriyothai and Jan Dara: Shot in gorgeous 35mm, the film opens with a reiteration of a doctor's office visit from Mysterious, then branches out into a three-hour meditation on science, superstition, sexuality, and the deleterious effects of Thai-Burmese border crossings. It all culminates in a long idyll in a forest glade where two couples engage in explicit intercourse, intimate dialogue, and complicated reveries and self-doubts. The influence of Tsai Ming-liang (one of Joe's favorite directors) is heavy upon it, but the philosophical and physical attitudes involved seem purely Thai, at least until Joe starts telling you that his major inspirations were "Warhol's sense of 'nothingness' " and the ways that American experimental-film forefather Bruce Baillie "records pleasure, and the sun."

Even if Blissfully Yours could pass the Thai film censors, which it can't, who in Thailand would even know it exists? Though a far richer provocation for world cinema than Jan Dara could ever hope to be, Blissfully Yours's willingness to ask tough questions about what a censorship-free and internationally minded Thai cinema could potentially be is the very thing that will probably doom it to official nonexistence. The few Thai film insiders who've even heard of it often titter, "Can you believe that Joe's making a three-hour porno film?" A former student of Chicago's School of the Art Institute, Joe's all too well aware that his films have only limited possibilities for art gallery screenings in Bangkok, and a far better chance of success in Brooklyn—where Mysterious enjoyed a brief, well-attended run at BAM in June—than it ever will at home.

Postscript: Suriyothai opened in Bangkok on August 17. In its first three days of release, it took in 110 million baht. It's expected to become the highest-grossing Thai film ever, and a windfall for Singha Beer, which has put 15 Suriyothai designs on a new series of collectible cans. Miramax has yet to make an offer for the film.

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